Activist and former Councilwoman María Berriozábal to serve as commencement speaker this week

Portrait of Maria Berriozabal, the first Latina to serve as a San Antonio City Council member. She still remains active in the community. (Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)

San Antonio activist and former councilwoman María Antonietta Berriozábal will serve as speaker as OLLU confers degrees for more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students during commencement exercises on Thursday.

Born to immigrants on the edge of the U.S.-Mexico border in 1941, Berriozábal rose from poverty to become a powerful voice and history-making political leader in South Texas. She became the first Latina to be elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1981, she ran a historic campaign for mayor in 1991, and she has been an active champion for civil rights and social justice.

At the age of 14, Berriozábal learned she had a hole between the chambers of her heart. She asked God for healing and, after numerous tests, her prayers were answered. The doctors could no longer detect the hole and only a heart murmur remained, which faded over time. As a result, Berriozábal dedicated her life to service and made it her mission to help her parents so her siblings could attend college. After graduating from Providence High School, Berriozábal became a secretary, earning enough to nearly double her family’s income. Her siblings went to college, and her two sisters graduated from Our Lady of the Lake College.

After more than 20 years of working and taking evening classes, Berriozábal earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1979. Just two years later, she ran her successful campaign for San Antonio City Council and served the residents of District 1 with distinction for 10 years. In 1991 Berriozábal brought national attention to the city when she ran for mayor – the first Latina to do so in a major Texas municipality. She lost by a narrow margin in a run-off election.

Since then, Berriozábal has continued to serve her community. She taught at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and donated her collection of papers from her tenure at City Hall to the Center for Mexican American Studies and Research at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU). She also helped raise $2.8 million for repairs to OLLU’s Sacred Heart Chapel in 1997.

In the fall of 2018, Berriozábal served as one of the lead organizers for the “Holding Up The Mirror Conference” marking the 50th anniversary of the 1968 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Hearings on Mexican Americans in the Southwest. The 1968 hearings and the 2018 conference were both held at OLLU and attracted thousands of visitors from across the U.S. and generated enormous media attention.

Graduation celebrations will begin Thursday morning with Ring Blessing and Graduation Liturgy. The schedule of events is as follows:

  • Ring Blessing – 10 a.m. – Sacred Heart Chapel
    Students will have the opportunity to have their rings and other items individually blessed. Graduation regalia not required
  • New alumni and family meet and greet – 10:30 a.m. – Chapel Auditorium

  • Graduation Liturgy – 12 p.m. – Sacred Heart Chapel
    Graduating students and their families and friends are invited to celebrate Mass. Graduation regalia is required.

  • Commencement Ceremony – 5 p.m. – Freeman Coliseum
    3201 E. Houston Street
    San Antonio. Texas 78219